Sunday, January 31, 2016

Songs of Decay

Two metrical translations of Horace.

I.25: To Lydia

Lusty young striplings strike your shuttered windows
less than they once did with their sprays of pebbles.
Less do they wake you, and your door stays shut now,
          gripping the threshold,

though it once swung back with the least resistance,
riding its hinges. Less and less a boy cries:
Lydia, nightlong I am split with torment—
          why are you sleeping?

Soon, when you’ve grown old, you will weep for proud lads,
wandering shrunken in a lonely alley,
while the sad north-wind in the moonless darkness
          waxes and thrashes.

Your love will burn you, and a lustful longing
hurl you to madness like a horse’s mother.
Fierce lust will sting you to your wounded liver;
          yea, and you’ll mutter:

Spiteful that gay lads love their verdant ivy
more than a myrtle that has lost its flower.
They’ll toss their dry fronds to the winter’s fellow—
          out to the east wind.

IV.11: To Ligurinus

You are cruel for the day, while you still bear all Aphrodite’s gifts:
but when winter arrives, all unannounced, freezing your blooming pride,
your fine hair will fall out, though it now rolls down to you shoulderblades.

When the colorful bloom now on your brow, brighter than summer’s buds,
fades and leaves in its place, hard Ligurine, ash and a pockmarked face,
you’ll look into the glass. Seeing yourself no more yourself you’ll say:

Gods, when I was was a boy, yet undecayed, where was this wise mind then?
Why won’t unsullied cheeks answer this soul, clothing my youthful thoughts?

Karel van der Pluym - Old Man Holding a Pair of Spectacles - WGA17984.jpg

The originals:

I.25

Parcius junctas quatiunt fenestras
Jactibus crebris juvenes protervi
Nec tibi somnos adimunt amatque
          Janua limen

Quae prius multum facilis movebat
Cardines; audis minus et minus jam:
Me tuo longas pereunte noctes,
          Lydia, dormis?

Invicem mœchos anus arrogantis
Flebis in solo levis angiportu,
Thracio bacchante magis sub inter
          Lunia vento,

Cum tibi flagrans amor et libido
Quæ solet matres furiare equorum
Sæviet circa jecur ulcerosum
          Non sine questu

Læta quod pubes hederâ virenti
Gaudeat pulla magis atque myrto,
Aridas frondis hiemis sodali
          Dedicet Euro.


IV.11

O crudelis adhuc et Veneris muneribus potens
Insperata tuæ cum veniet bruma superbiæ,
Et quæ nunc umeris involitant deciderint comæ
Nunc et qui color est puniceæ flore prior rosæ

Mutatus Ligurine in faciem verterit hispidam
Dices heu quotiens te speculo videris alterum
Quæ mens est hodie, cur eadem non puero fuit
Vel cur his animis incolumes non redeunt genæ?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Notes on Lack, Part II

In the last post I discussed the importance of denied desire to human personality. Now I’m going to discuss the exact ways in which an unmet need controls a soul. There are all kinds of psychological ways of coming to grips with lacking the one thing needful, whatever that is.

1. Striving. The first, and almost certainly the healthiest, is to do your damnedest to get it. That way you can put an end to your hunger. If you do get it, then you’ll stop wanting it. And if you don’t, then you get to be satisfied that it wasn’t just your own creeping neurosis that kept you from your heart’s desire. You can then cheerfully curse the world with a clean conscience. E. M. Forster’s novels preach this gospel: ruthless honesty about what you want, his wisest characters say, will rescue you from wallowing in muddles of half-understood anxiety and misery.

But most people and animals, even if they’re warmbloodedly honest about their real desires, and eager to fill them, are simply not powerful (or beautiful, or clever, or wealthy) enough to actually get what they want or need. They cannot unfold themselves into the world, and are trapped by the walls of unmoving matter—or of society, as the case may be.

This powerlessness causes all of human beings’ strange attempts to quiet their hunger without the possibility of food. Starting with:

2: Gratitude. You can convince yourself that you have everything you need, and that you’re thankful (to God, the gods, the earth, or your family) for what you have already have. This can save you from bitterness, as long as you have things in your life to be thankful for—which is no guarantee.

...and then, if you’re eager enough for what you lack, you’ll say in about ten seconds: why should I thank a world that has given me everything that’s unimportant but nothing that I really need? Since any desire strong enough will convince you that you only need x, both and z, however lovely, will seem like unnecessary tinsel. At which point you need other means of coping.

Who knows what they really want?
3: Sour Grapes. You can also convince yourself that what you want is actually worthless. Like Aesop’s tale of the fox and the grapes: “Gnawed at by hunger, the fox jumped with all his might to reach some high-hanging grapes. But he couldn’t touch them, and he muttered while walking away: they’re not ripe yet anyway.” Look around and you’ll see this everywhere. There’s the man who loves learning more than anything, but is denied a university education—and proceeds to heap scorn on academia for his whole life. There’s the woman who loves other women, but marries a man—and convinces herself it’s because homosexuals live pointless, wandering lives. There’s the nerd who mocks athletic prowess as dumb and brutish. There’s the sick person who convinces himself that health is evil because it tempts people into self-centered blitheness, and because it’s only temporary anyway. There’s the pauper who knows that wealth rots you on the inside.

This self-deceit can be healthy as long as you succeed in fooling yourself. Religious chastity, for instance, is a remedy to earthly loneliness as long as you believe to the bottom of your soul that carnal love is disgusting to God. But it doesn’t always work: many a priest (and there are more priests than wear a collar) has secretly suspected that heavenly love is a false substitute for the real thing. So when sour grapes seems like too thin a disguise, one turns to:

4: Escaping the Will. You can go the Theravadin Buddhist way: you can try to cut yourself loose from all desire. Tranquil nothingness is the ultimate goal, and the intermediate step is to stop wanting what you currently want. Here’s Cephalus in the Republic, book I:
I was once with the poet Sophocles when he was asked by someone: “how, Sophocles, are you getting on with love? Can you still lie with a woman?” He replied: “Listen, fellow: I fled from love gleefully, like someone fleeing a mad and wild master.” This reply seemed right to me when I heard it, and no less today. For there is certainly peace and freedom from these things in old age. When our passions relax and stop tearing us apart, Sophocles’ remark is true: there is freedom from many insane masters.
This is not mastering desire, which is the doctrine that Plato ends up preaching. It is escape from it. Consider also the Fire Sermon:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame.... The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging &; death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. 
“Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with the eye, disenchanted with forms, disenchanted with consciousness at the eye, disenchanted with contact at the eye. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: With that, too, he grows disenchanted...

He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
By escaping from your desires, says the Buddha, you can end your suffering. But it requires giving up who you are, or at least who you are right now: as I started this essay by saying, a person is knit together by what he longs for, and his personality is shaped by it. A purified arahant, by extinguishing his desires, extinguishes himself as well, and turns into a shadow of what he was—which vanishes forever at death. This is a feat of almost heroic self-denial, and would be incredible if there were not in fact heroes on earth. Some people can, in fact, save themselves. But if you’re not a hero, you have another option:

5. Surrender. You can give up all defenses, and accept deprivation’s power over you. This does painful things to you, but it’s at least honest: it carries none of the self-deceit implicit in #2. In Harry Potter, if you remember, the Mirror of Erised shows you whatever you want the most in the world. When he catches Harry staring at his living parents in the mirror, Dumbledore gives him a warning: “The mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible. … It doesn’t do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

Not even Dumbledore can avoid the pain of want—he doesn’t, we learn in the Half-Blood Prince, see only wool socks in the mirror. But Dumbledore can be wise enough to hide the mirror away, and live his life despite wanting a family more than anything. The suffering shepherd in Arcadia has to tend his flocks in the end, even if his soul shrivels as he does it.

That’s to put too gloomy a spin on it. Acknowledging slavery to the will can, of course, sink you into perpetual gloom. But it can also be done with a grin: read the love-poems in the Carmina Burana, which mix submission to desire with elvish glee. Most people, in fact, are enslaved to one denial or another, but a slave-song can be a jig as well as a dirge.

Denial can even be the furnace of industry and dignity. This is the point of Hans Sachs’ musing at the end of Die Meistersinger:
Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness! Wherever I look searchingly in city and world chronicles, to seek out the reason why people torment and flay each other in useless, foolish anger! No-one has reward or thanks for it: driven to flight, he thinks he is hunting; hears not his own cry of pain; when he digs into his own flesh he thinks he is giving himself pleasure! Who will give it its name? It is the old madness, without which nothing can happen, nothing whatever! If it halts somewhere in its course it is only to gain new strength in sleep: suddenly it awakens, then see who can master it!  
How peacefully with its staunch customs, contented in deed and work, lies, in the middle of Germany, my dear Nuremberg! ... Now let us see how Hans Sachs manages finely to guide the madness so as to perform a nobler work: or if madness won’t leave us in peace even here in Nuremberg, then let it be in the service of such works as are seldom successful in plain activities and never so without a touch of madness.
The world is consumed with desire, he says, in language borrowed straight from Schopenhauer. But desire, however evil, is the stuff of our lives. That’s something we need to live with. Humanity, if it can’t rid itself of the will, can wear it as an ennobling crown.  

Notes on Lack, Part I

“A person’s soul can be shaped by what it’s denied.”

That’s what my friend E. quipped to me a couple years ago. And though I’ve forgotten the context in which he said it, it’s lingered with me since then. It is true: a desire can be hot enough to melt someone completely out of shape. A person’s entire personality can become an instrument of acquiring what he needs, or at least of dulling the pain of not having it. And he becomes another person because of it. (Galadriel, renouncing the ringI will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.)

The roots of this phenomenon are material, since even the most animal needs can make someone drop everything to fulfill them. Anyone who’s really thirsty, for instance, stops thinking about anything besides cold water, which he thinks is the only thing necessary for happiness. (Christ on the cross stopped longing for heaven after a point and said: “I thirst.”) Health, too, is a sick man’s imagined paradise. This makes evolutionary sense: a creature that feels no soul-bending needs is devoured by another creature that does.

But in human experience, it’s not just a matter of flesh trying to preserve itself by means of its desires. We don’t, after all, think constantly about how we’re going to survive and procreate, but we are forced here and there by wants that seem purely spiritual to us. A cow who’s lost her calf doesn’t understand anything about Darwinian theory, but she does feel that the only important thing is gone forever.

The point is partly that one considers what one doesn’t have to be the most vital thing in the universe. For John Milton it was light. To say that Milton revered light is an understatement: he believed that light is as ancient and eternal as God himself. The only necessary explanation of this belief is that Milton was completely blind from 1652 onwards. A few years before his death, he put these words into the mouth of Samson, blinded by the Philistines in Gaza:

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain!
Blind among enemies, O worse then chains,
Dungeon, or beggery, or decrepit age!
Light the prime work of God to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight
Annull’d, which might in part my grief have eas’d...
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more then half.
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all;
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?


The only thing necessary for Milton’s eternal happiness was the only thing that he lacked. His only consolation was that he had some inner, spiritual vision to replace his eyes—and sure enough, his later poetry is suffused with this sense of spiritual insight. But this was a coping mechanism. God is light, he wrote, and that wasn’t just a metaphor.

You don’t need a sharp mind to think of more examples. But here are some anyway: the Jews, despised wanderers for two thousand years, became a people that worshipped a homeland. The Roman Epicurean, troubled by the triumph of pain and decay, thought constantly about the gods, whose lives are eternal and painless. And when I lived in flat and gray Chicago, I caught myself thinking that to live in the mountains and to see the stars was the only way to live a beautiful life.

I don’t just mean that the grass is greener on the other side. My point is that denial is so powerful that it shapes an animal’s mind and body. Conscious existence, as a result, is founded on want. For example: until a fish gets swallowed by a bigger, more frightening fish, its only thought is how to find some smaller, less frightening fish to swallow. Since its entire existence is a great panic for life and food, a fish amounts to no more than a belly with fangs. Because we are at more ease than a fish, we can afford to be more capacious, and think about Homer and J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars in addition to life and death. But real tranquillity and self-mastery is reserved to only a few human beings: there are enough gnawing hungers in the world to put even a prosperous person under their yoke.

Pictured: hunger gnaws at the world.

One’s soul, to repeat, is stamped by what one wants far more than what one has. We are what we want. You don’t usually think about what you do have—whether it’s wifi, love, or beauty. The wealthy, for instance, have the privilege of forgetting all about vulgar money, and the powerful can be eccentric without being tethered by a desperate race for popularity. (Money and power can therefore be good for your soul: they stop you thinking about money and power, thoughts that can wreck you more than money and power themselves.)

You do think, all the time, about what you don’t have, but want. This is healthy if it is in your power to take what you need. Then you can live your life as an unfolding of your powers, embodying yourself—that is, your desires—in the world around you. You are good at what you have been shaped by your desires to be, and are therefore happy. (When Aristotle equated virtue, by which he meant skill at being human, with happiness, I think this is what he meant.) But serving an unslakable desire can make you into something miserable. More about that in part II.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Temple of the Muses

There’s a small room on the western side of the British Museum—right next to the Elgin Marbles—that is one of my favorite places on earth. It contains Roman copies of Greek statues; each one either a god or a godlike mortal.

One of them is a victorious athlete tying a fillet around his head. All of his features—the slightly bent leg, the tilt of the neck, the modest genitals—display the relaxation that attaches only to tremendous bodily power.


In the center of the room is a crouching Venus, whose soft limbs curl around her body in a delicate mixture of shame and suggestiveness.


There is also a statue of Bacchus. Far more languid than the athlete at the top, this sculpture is tranquil in a different way. Without any tension, he stands sedate, completely empty of worry. Nothing can disturb this god’s simple, sensuous happiness.



Here is the flower of youth and beauty, the most fleeting thing in the world, frozen forever in marble. These statues stand above the muddy world of flesh, freed even from sexual passion. In room #23, you get to breathe this Olympian atmosphere for as long as you decide to stay. 

A museum, true to its name, is a temple of the Muses. It has been true for thousands of years that a temple preserves its purity by shutting out everything profane. Here in the British Museum—in the Vatican Museums too, and in the Met—a nervous soul can be safe from the snapping teeth of the world. It’s best if they’re completely empty: just before a museum closes, it’s sometimes just you and the gods in there. Good museums do not acknowledge the outside. They are of course free of charge for anyone who wants to go in, but they are also protected from the hum from the street—not to mention from the postmodern hatred of beauty. A silent, lovely place is all they can—and do—provide. That, and an encounter with carnal, corporeal gods.

Music halls, too, should do their best to meet this standard of pure, removed, and godly beauty. It’s a tired complaint that symphonies and opera-houses risk becoming irrelevant if they refuse to play new and experimental music. “If you just do the classics, you turn into a museum,” says a guy named Keith Geeslin, and a horde of sophisticated professionals agree. You can probably predict my reply: of course an opera house should be a museum! By God, there ought to be some refuges in the world for someone revolted by the glibness of modernity. At the symphony I don’t want to hear anything relevant to the modern day. In fact, I want something as defiant of modernity as possible. I want to spend at least some time in a sacred and enchanted grove, where I can commune with a tranquil holiness that’s not available at all on the street outside.

After all, we’re surrounded by petty strife and ugliness every day. The aesthetic impoverishment of our everyday lives is too grim to be brought up often. But I’ll mention it here: modern cities are grey, blind monsters. Their cyclopean size is matched only by the constant cannibalism on their streets. (A crammed bus, honked at for blocking the box, lurches into the crosswalk, where it’s cursed at by livid pedestrians. Etc. etc.) Surprisingly and amazingly, there are places in cities—museums—where one can escape all this, and there will be as long as they aren’t invaded by the rich and tasteless.

Now let me admit my motive for writing this. A little while ago I condemned mysticism for leading souls into the formless abyss. It is ruinous to despise ordinary life, and to chase after unreal shadows. But there is an alternative to both drab life and and nihilist mysticism: you can surround yourself with earthly beauty. A museum is a repository of that beauty. Bacchic, otherworldly music leads one to despise the visible world, but a marble statue can inspire love for it. A beautiful sculpture gives you a glimpse the godliness that actually does, ever so slightly, peek into our reality. Now, seeking beauty in this way is just as much a flight from the evil of the world as mysticism. But instead of shattering you, it leaves you whole—wholer, in fact, than you were before.